In our ongoing series on death, scent, and ancient Egypt we have explored the divine origins of the Egyptian perfume trade and the role that olfaction played in Egyptian myth. Now we reach the intersection of material culture, belief systems, and death with the physical preparation of the body, which used many aromatic ingredients. The creation of the archetypical Egyptian mummy was a complex evolution that embraced the olfactive elements of the putrid and the divine.
This post is part of an ongoing series on fragrance in Ancient Egypt. Find out more about the sacred business of Egyptian perfume-making in Part I, how mummies ended up in magic incense in Part II and the connections between olfaction and divinity in Egyptian myth in Part III
Father of Lies
First, I think it is important to remember that we live closer on the timeline to Cleopatra the 7th than she did to the founding of the 1st Dynasty. Egypt changed considerably over that huge swath of time; ecologically, politically, even demographically. While Egyptian culture as a whole venerated the concept of Ma’at (cosmic order) and the stability it provided, customs still evolved. So be cautious whenever someone says, “this is how some ancient people did something…full stop.”, because that is rarely the case. To understand how aromatics played a role in mummy preparation we need to know how this whole mummy thing began.
The first accounts of mummification came to the West from Herodotus, a Greek living in Halicarnassus while it was part of the Persian Empire in the 5th century BCE. He has the distinction of having both the moniker of Father of History and Father of Lies. It’s pretty clear Herodotus never actually saw a mummy being prepared and probably got his stories second hand. Flemming Nielson wrote in The Tragedy in History: Herodotus and the Deuteronomistic History, “Though we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of Herodotus having been in Egypt, it must be said that his narrative bears little witness to it.”
For instance, he is the only source for the little nugget World History teachers like to tell to get a nervous giggle out of the class. You know, the one about rich pretty girls being allowed to rot for a few days at home before going to the embalmers to discourage necrophilia and protect their chastity. There are no corroborating sources for that story. While I’m sure necrophilia occurred and a family would prefer strange men not have sex with their daughter’s corpse; we also have to think about what we know about the spiritual need to preserve the bodily form intact. It feels like a Greek interpretation of customs with their own gender issues plopped on top (Ancient Greece-not easy on the ladies). Women in Ancient Egypt could own their own land and divorce their husbands. They didn’t even have a concept of virginity so who’s chastity are they protecting? Also, the ancients were not shy about sex. When your Royals practice brother-sister incest, you have a god of boners, and your central myth revolves around divine necrophilia (Isis & Osiris), I don’t think you are going to have a problem writing down a little something about how you discourage cheeky embalmers if it was such a widespread concern.
So let’s leave old Herodotus to himself and let’s see what others have to say.
The Business of Ancient Death
The archaeological evidence verifies that mummification began as a natural process that evolved over time. Early Egyptians saw that bodies buried in the shallow pit graves that were in use before 3500 BCE could dehydrate into natural mummies. Much like the scarab beetle’s every rolling ball and the Nile’s yearly floor, early Egyptians used these natural observations to inform their religious customs.
There is also evidence to confirm Herodotus’ claim that embalming workshops (houses of Osiris) were set up on the outskirts of settlements right on the edge where the fertile Nile-fed ecosystem ended, and the desert began. This was both symbolic (leaving the land of the living and entering the land of the dead) and practical as the smell of several dozen salted bodies being prepped in the hot sun wouldn’t have added to the joys of the city. These workshops started as not much more than tents but developed into considerable complexes outside of major areas like Thebes, Amarna, and Alexandria.
While mummification began around 3400 BCE, the process you may be familiar with, known as “true mummification” was not perfected until around 2600 BCE in the 4th dynasty. True mummification involves evisceration (cutting of the abdomen and removal of all or most of the internal organs), rinsing the inner cavity with palm wine, followed by natron curing of the inner and outer body, then further preservation of the body with resins and aromatics before and after wrapping.
We know sadly very little of the early experimentation that led to this system. Let alone the process by which embalmers went from providing a civil service to being religious practitioners of an afterlife prerequisite. For instance, 1st Dynasty royal burials were in simple cedar caskets, and the body was placed in the fetal position. Why it went from that to the flat, arms-crossed position is up for speculation.
We also don’t have a complete history of practical embalming from the Egyptians themselves. Two copies of the Papyrus of the Embalming Ritual have been found, both dating from around the 1st century CE but both are sadly incomplete. Likewise, we know that embalming started as the reserve of the royal family that eventually became available to most classes of Egyptian society, but Egypt’s poor did not get all the bells and whistles. The vast majority of mummified Ancient Egyptian bodies we’ve found are higher caste people, and we have an incomplete understanding of lower class burials.
What we do know is what the bodies we have left behind, and that’s a whole lot of aromatic resin. The one occasion I had to be within smelling distance of Egyptian mummies the thing that struck me was their scent. (Yes I am a weirdo, and I sniff mummies) They were very subtle in the way of dry remains: leather, dust, old cloth, dry rot, but also resinous and waxy. I can’t say I am an expert in the scent of ancient bodies, but they smelt different than other dry remains I’ve been around.
As we discussed in our last instalment scent was an essential part of Egyptian mythology and the afterlife. Pleasant aromas were associated with divinity and the soul, while malodours were synonymous with corruption and spiritual annihilation. Likewise, the embalmers didn’t have knowledge of bacteria, but they did know that moisture was the enemy of eternity. The gums, resins, and aromatics known to the Egyptians are themselves the biological arsenal of hardy desert plants. Myrrh, frankincense and cinnamon bark did not gain a genetic advantage from smelling appealing to humans per se, their odours are a defence against pest and infection. I can’t help but think that the ever-observant Egyptians were drawn both to their beauty and their effective pest strategies. From onions to honey and henna, the embalmer’s toolbox was filled with preparations already in use for food preservation, as well as skin and wound treatment, not to mention sacred incense and perfume. It was only the next logical step that these items be applied to the preservation of dead bodies as well.
Osiris (God of the Afterlife) is the body of the plants, Nefertum (God of Divine Scents & Healing) is the soul of the plants, the plants purified. The divine perfume belongs to Nefertum, living forever.
Hymn to Nefertum, 18th dynasty
Steve Van Toller, G. H. Todd: Fragrance: Psychology and Biology of Perfume, 1992 Springer, p.290
There is such an elegance to the Egyptian worldview, this combination of lyrical allegory and good old fashion practicality. Rot was death, foul odours where the destruction of Ma’at. With natron and aromatics such as cedar, cassia, henna, and myrrh the body was redeemed from destruction. The body wasn’t brought back to life but instead transmogrified into a new physical state of being, an eternal body beyond the reach of decay. Just as the gods were elevated by their heavenly fragrance and everlasting bodies, so too was the mummified person.
Let’s take for an example the 2,000-year-old mummy of Sherit that resides at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. Sherit is the name given to the mummy of a girl of about four or five years old at the time of her death. Her body went through intensive examination a few years ago and included the assistance of natural perfume maven Mandy Aftel in identifying and reconstructing the burial fragrance. Sherit lived during the Roman occupation of Egypt. A quick illness, perhaps dysentery, claimed the child suddenly. Judging from her funeral goods, Sherit came from a wealthy family, but child mortality was high even for the upper class at that time. Her mummification is quite classic for the period.
The organs were removed through an incision in the side of the abdomen. Her stomach, intestines, lungs and liver were placed in canopic jars and arranged between her legs. The brain was eviscerated via a small incision on the side of the cranium and then whisked with a reed before being drained through the nose. The cranium and body cavity was rinsed with palm wine as a type of disinfectant before the body was packed and covered with natron for dehydration. Sherit’s corpse would have remained in the salt for upwards of 40 days. Afterwards, the abdomen was packed with lichen, the heart was put back in the chest and the skin would have been treated with a combination of aromatic gums, resins, pitch, bitumen and fragrant oils. Before her final wrapping and the application of her plaster cartonnage, the last ceremony was performed. This may have been done by her parents or perhaps the Master of Secrets (head embalmer). Frankincense and myrrh that had been steeped in Moringa oil was poured over the child’s body, inundating her with the scents of sanctity. Frankincense was a later addition to the arsenal of embalming and helped date the body. Analysis of the 2,000-year-old fragrance materials showed that both the frankincense and myrrh came from modern-day Somalia. Which is still regarded as the greatest region for myrrh and frankincense cultivation in the world.
One can envision this final moment of grief between parents and child. The pouring out of hope, of love, of absolute heartbreak. Yet, through this ritual, they sought to elevate their daughter beyond physical death. Olfaction to the Egyptians was the Breath of Life. One needed to be anointed like the gods to join them in the afterlife.
The god Anpu (Anubis) spake unto those about him with the words of a man who cometh from Ta-mera, saying, “He knoweth our roads and our towns. I am reconciled unto him. When I smell his odour it is even as the odour of one of you.”
Ani Papyrus, approx 1250 BCE, Chapter: Entering into the Hall of the Ma’ati to praise Osiris Khenti-Amenti, E.A. Wallis Budge translation
The parents probably had no idea that this fragrant ichor would help preserve their daughter for two millennia, but by pouring it over her body, they wished to grant her a life beyond death, and in a way they succeeded.
Lots of materials were used in the creation of Egyptian mummies over the years, some are still staples of the perfume and cosmetics trades. Other you can find in your kitchen or shed.
Alum: Otherwise known as hydrated potassium aluminium sulphate, has been used in food and cosmetics since antiquity for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It has regained fame in the modern age as “rock deodorant” or “deodorant crystals”. Its purpose in mummification is unclear. Trace amounts on wrappings may be from a dye, paint, or contaminated natron rather than part of the mummification. It is found consistently enough in the chemical analysis of mummy skin to include it on this list.
Beeswax: Good old fashion beeswax, a mainstay in lip balms and solid perfumes to this day. Beeswax was used in mummification to close openings where moisture or pests could enter the body. This included ears, eyes, nose, mouth as well as bodily injuries or postmortem incisions. In one case a mummy’s leg broke off during processing, and the limb was reattached with a metal pin and beeswax. As the scientists researching the body were unaware of the repair until an MRI scan, it is possible some sneaky embalmers got one past the family.
Bitumen: We’ve discussed bitumen before on the blog. It is a natural form of asphalt that coated the cranial and body cavities of some mummies. It was also used in later antiquity as a pungent base for incense. The addition of bitumen was not universally adopted and was not added to the mummification ritual until the Graeco-Roman period. It appears to have been preferred by Ptolemaic Egyptians.
Cassia and Cinnamon: I’m combining these two because they are both varieties of Asian laurel and there is some question as to whether they were both used, just one was used, or none at all. Herodotus mentions cassia and Diodorus said cinnamon (possibly referring to the same material) as having been used in mummification. While good old Herodotus vouches for cassia/cinnamon’s use, there have only been two academic examinations of cassia or cinnamon in mummification, and they were far from conclusive. The bodies that were found with Cassia oil on their skin were dated to 2600 BCE. These rare herbs grow in India, Sri Lanka and China (aka the dark side of the moon for Ancient Egyptians) and were not common in Egyptian food or perfumery so while a few very rare bodies may have used cassia or cinnamon it was not the norm. However, both cassia and cinnamon are the feel-good hygge smells beloved in both perfume and home fragrance today.
Cedar Oil: The distillation process needed to create modern cedar essential oil was not available to the Egyptians. It is more likely that fragrant cedar wood and juniper berries were macerated and steeped in a carrier oil like moringa oil. This was used to clean and condition the skin and the interior cavities. It was also cut with turpentine and injected into tissues to add fullness. Cedar oil is an effective antifungal, antibacterial, and insecticide. Cedar is still a beloved fragrance material. It is also the undisputed king of closets for its aromatic properties and ability to scare off moths.
Coniferous Resins: Tree resins served as the backbone of the embalming process. They were antibacterial and antimicrobial. They provided some flexibility to the body while sealing the skin like a varnish. The Egyptians were not cheap about getting good coniferous resins either. Juniper was a favourite though it did not grow in Egypt, Lebanese cedar was considered the highest quality resin that could be used, perhaps because the Lebanese cedar isn’t a very sappy tree and its resin is, therefore, the most expensive. Aleppo pine and Cilician fir were also popular and showed the reach of Egypt’s economic trading circle. These resins were and still are used in incense and while we in the West may associate pine with cleaning products all four of these notes are still in use in modern perfumery.
Frankincense: Is a balsamic aromatic resin from trees of the Boswellia genus in the Burseraceae family. It is found in the Arabic Peninsula, North Africa, and Somalia where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years. Frankincense was so important to the Egyptians that Pharoh Hatshepsut launched a major expedition south to secure a regular trade route for the stuff. While Frankincense was valuable in Egypt is didn’t enter into routine embalming until the Graeco-Roman period. Its use in mummification may have been aromatic/ceremonial, but it was also traditionally used to treat scorpion bites and skin maladies so there may have been practical concerns too. Frankincense has been a mainstay of perfumery for 5,000 years.
Gum Arabic: A natural viscous adhesive and binder, Gum Arabic derives from the acacia tree. It was used in mummification for closing large incisions, adhering wrappings, and other forms of sealing. Gum Arabic is still in regular use in food, cosmetics, adhesives, and pharmaceuticals.
Henna: Is a bushy flowering plant found around the world that when dried and powered is an effective skin and hair dye. Egyptians used henna to dye hair and wigs going back to the 19th Dynasty. It is speculated that its use in mummification was to give the skin the appearance of living circulation and it has antibacterial properties.
Honey: Is a powerful natural antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial agent that was used in mummification to dilute resins while coating and protecting the skin. It is still widely used in cosmetics and food today.
Juniper Berries: Though Juniper does not grow in Egypt the berries were an expensive food additive, and they were thought to add astringent fragrance to the mummification ritual. They may have also been used to dye the finger and toenails along with henna. Juniper berries are a refreshing note in perfumery to this day.
Lichen: From the 21st to the 23rd Dynasty the body cavities of some mummies were packed with dried lichen. While the Egyptians were using these plants for their absorptive properties, moss and other lichen scents have grown in popularity over the years.
Mastic: Also called Arabic Gum (not to be confused with Gum Arabic) or the Tears of Chios; this is a brittle and somewhat bitter resin derived from the sap of the Mastic tree. It has traditionally been produced on the Greek island of Chios and was probably imported into Egypt. Mastic served an aromatic and religious role both in temple worship and in mummy preparation. Mastic has a long history in both incense, perfume and in chewing gum.
Myrrh: An ingredient of profound religious significance to the Egyptians, Myrrh is an aromatic gum that has a long tradition in both perfume and medicine. Myrrh would indeed have been used in mummification for religious reasons, but it is also an effective arthropod repellent.
Moringa Oil: The Moringa tree originated in the Himalayas but migrated to Africa where it thrived. The Egyptians favoured moringa as a carrier oil and for an enfleurage base. Many of the softer gums and resins were applied to the body via this oil. Moringa has recently come into vogue as a face and hair oil and is being praised as the new argan oil.
Natron: The most essential ingredient to Egyptian embalming, natron is a naturally-occurring salt with a high degree of sodium carbonate decahydrate (soda ash) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). It wasn’t just used on the body, natron was packed into tombs to both purify and protect the inhabitant. Natron was so prized because it would dehydrate flesh quickly while absorbing water and soft fats with ease. It was also a brutal antiseptic and antibacterial agent. This was ideal for the type of curing the mummies needed to undergo. Natron was also burned in incense during purification rituals. Today natron is rarely used.
Onions: It seems weird, but onions were used in embalming from the New Kingdom until the Third Intermediate Period. Onion skin was sometimes used as a false eyelid, but more commonly the bulbs were placed in the body cavity, on the crotch or sections were put in the external ears of the mummy. While onions are not our idea of an enticing aromatic, the scent was strong and affordable. Surprisingly onion accords have never been popular in perfumery.
Palm Wine: Made from the fermented sap of date palms. Date wine was used as an antibacterial rinse and libation both before and after salting.
Sawdust: Mummies that could not afford to be stuffed with aromatic resins or lichen were stuffed with sawdust, woodchips and rags.
Unguents: Are an oily cream preparation typically using thickened oils and animal fat. Like a solid perfume, this was the preferred fragrance application for the Egyptians. Most of the aromatic elements not suspended in oil would be applied to the mummy via unguent.
Wood Pitch: Wood pitch is a catch-all term for the viscous tar-like substance produced from the dry distillation of timber. Birch tar is a popular type of wood pitch in Europe. This sticky black substance was used in later periods and for those that could not afford the finer coniferous resins. Wood pitch however still had a strong smokey leathery aromatic quality and is a profoundly affecting gastropod repellent. Wood pitch, particularly Birch tar, has a long history of adding smokey, leathery, wintergreen notes to perfume. However, with IFRA and EU regulations, it is only available in limited markets these days.
Here are a few in-depth pieces about resins used in the mummification process to hold you over until our next instalment.
A Review of the materials used during the mummification processes in ancient Egypt, Gomaa Abdel-Maksouda, Abdel-Rahman El-Aminb
Analysis of an Egyptian Mummy Resin by Mass Spectrometry, Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Volume 3, Issue 5 (July 1992), pp. 479-597, Mark L. Proefke, Kenneth L. Rinehart
Evidence for prehistoric origins of Egyptian mummification in Late Neolithic burials. PloS one 9.8 (2014): e103608. Jones, Jana, et al.
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Cover Image of mummified man from the Ptolemy era currently on display at the Lovre Museum.